Sand And Sensibility
08/11/1998
Jewish Week Book Critic
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For those who enjoy a bit of Judaism at the beach — or in the hammock — here are a some breezy titles.

When the neighbors who spend their evenings lazing on their front stoops in Bernard Malamud’s 1956 story A Summer’s Reading hear that George Stoyonovich has a summer plan to read 100 library books, they treat the 20-year-old high school drop-out with more respect and kindness than he’s ever encountered. But he never goes to the library; he reads nothing but some picture magazines his sister Sophie collects off the tables at the cafeteria where she works. When he thinks he’s been found out, George feels enormous shame, and then grace and relief when he realizes his secret is safe. But come fall, he heads to the public library. Determined, George builds a stack of 100 titles and starts reading.

Even with the best of intentions, many of summer’s contemplated books don’t get opened until the longer nights of autumn. But as summer begins — and everything seems possible —lots of people collect books as well as suggestions. Conversations with people all around this city reveal four types: readers who embark on a specific program of self-education; those who try to read all the books whose reviews they clipped and saved over the course of the year; others who tackle only books that are no more serious than a slice of watermelon; and the random readers who pick up whatever they find, wherever they are.

It’s true that the People of the Book aren’t the only ones to bring their books to the beach. And certainly Jews read best-sellers and the books that everyone else is reading. But for those who enjoy a bit of Judaism in the sand — or in the hammock — here are some suggestions.

Some selections, but not all, are books by Jewish authors; some only touch on Jewish themes while others have Judaism as their prime focus; most are just-published.

Setting the Mood

To shift into a summer frame of mind, look at Harvey Stein’s color photographs in Coney Island (Norton), a beach he describes as “the poor man’s Riviera.” Stein captures the radiant summer light, as well as the energy of the beach and boardwalk — “a fantasyland of the past with a seedy present and an irrepressible optimism about its future” — in all its unique color, from Nathan’s to the mermaid parade. The photos offer no nostalgia for the Coney Island of our immigrant past, but show its ongoing appeal to a remarkable range of people. Included is a Coney Island timeline, from 1609, when Henry Hudson lands on Coney Island, to last year’s 70th anniversary of the cyclone.

For background and fascinating reading, The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (Viking) by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bokser. It is an illustrated social, geological and cultural history, covering therapeutic as well as pleasure beaches, from St. Tropez to Miami Beach to Coney Island. “After all is said and done, we still come to the beach to slip through a crack of time into the paradise of self-forgetfulness.”

Fiction

Summer novels should be page-turners, so absorbing that time spent reading on lazy afternoons passes without notice, and dipping into the nearest body of water is long delayed. Several of the books listed wouldn’t traditionally be considered Jewish novels, but all have at least one Jewish character who’d be good company; some choices are more demanding than others.

Summer settings are prominent in Summer at Gaglow (Ecco) by Esther Freud, daughter of the painter Lucien Freud. A best-seller in England, the novel, set in World War I and the present, portrays a family dealing with the past. Comedy abounds with finely tuned 1960s details in The Inn at Lake Devine (Random House) by Elinor Lipman. A young Jewish woman, whose family is rebuffed by a restricted hotel in Vermont, grows obsessed with it; and her life becomes intertwined with its present and future.

New first novels starring New Yorkers include The Treatment (Random House) by Daniel Menaker, a funny and thoughtful view of a Jewish prep school teacher working out the relationships in his life. Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Unexpected Salami (Algonquin), a comedy with lots of twists, opens with the Yiddish proverb, “When luck calls, offer it a seat.”

Adoption is at the core of three unrelated works. Mrs. Einstein (Norton) by Anna McGrail is a novel of magical realism that speculates on the life of the daughter given up for adoption by Albert Einstein. Belva Plain’s Legacy of Silence (Delacorte) is about a prosperous family who adopts a young girl in Germany in the 1930s and their subsequent life in America. In Somebody’s Baby (Morrow) by Elaine Kagan, the daughter of a wealthy Midwestern Jewish family falls in love while in high school with a gentile who’s off limits: a tattooed gas-station attendant. She becomes pregnant and is forced to give up the child for adoption. Later on, the then-grown up child seeks out her biological parents living in different parts of the country, uncovering layers of enduring love.

For suspense, Damascus Gate (Houghton Mifflin) by Robert Stone, a spiritual thriller set in Israel, is entertaining and provocative. A historical thriller, The Angel of Darkness (Random House) by Caleb Carr features Lucas and Marcus Isaacson, Jewish detectives who help solve a turn-of-the-century case.

Newly released in paperback editions are two novels both serious and funny, probing inner lives, Eve’s Apple (Plume) by Jonathan Rosen, a love story and psychological mystery, related to eating disorders, and Rosalind: A Family Romance (Zoland) by Myra Goldberg, the story of a successful therapist who draws her family together for healing. A Holocaust novel, Fugitive Pieces (Vintage) by Anne Michaels, also available in paperback, may not be typical summer reading but it is a beautifully written meditation on memory.

Science fiction fans will appreciate a new edition of Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Jack Dann (Jewish Lights), with stories by Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pamela Sargent and others, including William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi.”

More Fiction

The perfect summer book should fit easily into a beach tote or luggage, but those who don’t mind lugging volumes with many pages should consider works by the masters, Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Isaac Bashevis Singer’s latest posthumous novel, Shadows on the Hudson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Norman Mailer’s The Time of Our Time (Random House), a chronological compilation of reportage and fiction selections.

History

Comic strip history is just serious enough so that blaring radios and other sounds of summer won’t disturb. Stan Mack’s The Story of the Jews: A 4000 Year Adventure (Villard) is a witty pictorial history depicting a chain of related events, in Mack’s signature style, both simple and sophisticated. He describes it as “sort of a cross between an illuminated manuscript and a modern web page, with some of the punch of a political cartoon.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tony Horwitz offers glimpses of southern Jewish history and Jewish participation in the Civil War as an aspect of his journalistic, sometimes humorous travelogue to the war’s continued presence in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Pantheon).

Autobiography

One of the best ways to lose oneself, at the shore or lounging on a fire escape, is by entering the life of another. Several new memoirs highlight Jews with some unusual career paths. Restaurateur and raconteur George Lang, who owns Cafe des Artistes on the Upper West Side, peels back the layers of his life story in Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen (Knopf).

Underground Woman: My Four Years as a New York City Subway Conductor (Temple) by Marian Swerdlow provides an insider’s account of life on the rails running below our city. Swerdlow, one of the first women conductors, also edited the rank-and-file newsletter, “Hell on Wheels.” Included is a glossary of more than 140 subway terms, from “wrap it around,” to drive a train as fast as it will go, to “deadheading,” a crew riding on a train rather than operating it, a preferable but hard-to-come-by assignment.

Conversation Starters

Summer reading is often public reading; titles are broadcast. Some titles alone can inspire new dialogues. Consider Letters to a Young Feminist (Four Walls Eight Windows), a powerful message from Phyllis Chesler, a leading feminist long involved in the cause; and Jews in Places You Never Thought Of (Ktav) edited by Karen Primack, a collection of articles about personal encounters with Jews in Cape Verde, Nigeria, China, Uganda, Peru, India and other places, adding considerably to the ongoing discussion of Jewish identity. The Jewish Book of Etiquette (Aronson) by Ronald Isaacs has more to do with the Bible and Talmud than with Emily Post, but no doubt will lead to interesting talk. And about talk, The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue by Deborah Tannen (Random House), a follow-up to You Just Don’t Understand examines the ways we communicate in public.

Essays

Books that can be read in small chunks have particular appeal. Fans of the splendid writer Grace Paley will enjoy Just As I Thought, a collection of articles and essays. Daughters of Kings: Growing Up as a Jewish Woman in America edited by Leslie Brody (Fromm) is a collection of personal essays by a diverse group of 13 Jewish and non-Jewish women who met while fellows at Radcliffe.

Family Values

For those who never like to be too far away from family on vacation, two loving and funny accounts are Family Man by Calvin Trillin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about life with his wife and two daughters; and I Love Gootie: My Grandmother’s Story by Max Apple (Warner), the winning tale of an immigrant bubbe. Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom (Doubleday) is an inspiring story of the connection between a sportswriter and his college professor in his last months of life.

Mystical Journeys

In the early morning light, try Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters (HarperSanFrancisco), Rodger Kamenetz’s spiritual travelogue, written with candor and insight. A good introduction to Jewish mystical teachings is The Shambhala Guide to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism (Shambhala) by Perle Besserman, a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. The Enneagram and the Kabbalah: Reading Your Soul by Rabbi Howard A. Addison (Jewish Lights) bridges two mystical traditions. For those interested in learning meditation by the book, Meditations from the Heart of Judaism: Today’s Teachers Share Their Practices, Techniques and Faith edited by Avram Davis (Jewish Lights) features essays by Sylvia Boorstin, Jonathan Omer-Man and others.

Rabbis On The Beach

For those who prefer the company of rabbis, several new titles will be of interest — and also provide good reading as the High Holy Day season approaches. Living in the Image of God: Conversations with Rabbi Irving Greenberg as conducted by Shalom Freedman (Aronson) is an introduction to the thoughts of Rabbi “Yitz” Greenberg. His challenging, sometimes provocative views are presented on such subjects as covenant, tikkun olam, Jewish unity, leaders and leadership, the role of women in Orthodoxy, the situation of Modern Orthodoxy and Holocaust commemoration.

The Time Is Now: Sixty ‘Time Pieces’ for Reflection and Action by Rabbi Daniel S. Wolk (Overlook) is an uplifting book that grew out of responses the author received when he asked people how they would change their lives if they knew they had only two years to live. Rabbi Wolk has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El in Rye, N.Y., for more than 30 years.

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